When you give a scientist a camera

On Jan. 24, we featured an article about TERRA: The Nature of Our World, an extension of the film program at MSU that provides nature- and science-based films to the public for free. TERRA holds its own in the film world — it was recently nominated in the green category of the Pixel Awards and has been providing quality films since 2005.

>>TERRA brings nature to your screen

This success has brought a unique element to the MSU film program, giving students new opportunities and providing the public with entertaining and educational films. This is made possible by the Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) program which Ronald Tobias founded thirteen years ago, the first of its kind. This week, we explore MSU’s Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, a field that seeks to change the world and create a new educational paradigm, one film at a time.

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When You Give a Scientist a Camera

“You know what we need? We should have an academic program teach science and natural history filmmaking,”
–Ronald Tobias

Last November, a group of Master of Fine Arts candidates at Montana State University hosted the eighth annual Element Film Festival. These MFA candidates are not typical film students, and the films they created did more than provide cheap thrills and aesthetic appeal. To get into the MFA program, students are required to have an undergraduate degree in a science-based field; when they graduate, they will have MFAs in Science and Natural History Filmmaking.

When Ronald Tobias founded the program at MSU in 2000, it was the first program of its type in the world. Tobias worked at the Discovery Channel at the time, and he credits his co-worker Bo Landin for the idea. “We were just out having a beer one day and he said, ‘You know what we need? We should have an academic program teach science and natural history filmmaking,’” Tobias said. “The idea kind of stuck with me, and a couple years later I called him up and asked Bo if he minded if I ran with it.”

Of course, Tobias couldn’t start the program without funding. But “the timing was right,” and Discovery agreed to fund the program at MSU for five years. Twelve years later, the program is alive and well. “People have graduated and gotten out, and they’re now getting into positions where you can see their influence,” Tobias said. “They’re doing better than the faculty; they’ve won more awards.”

A New Paradigm

Science, a data-driven field, and film, a creative yet technical field, seem to make a rather awkward combination. But human actions increasingly affect the environment we depend on today in tangible ways, creating a kind of urgency Tobias says he’s never seen before to rethink the ways we use natural resources, consume and pollute, and take first-world amenities for granted. “People are really worried,” Tobias said. “The problem is that people who are worried tend to lecture, and people say ‘I don’t want to hear it anymore. I’m tired of you people telling me what to do.’”

To communicate the sense of urgency and worry which scientists feel in our increasingly digital world, you must utilize the advanced technologies which ironically contribute to degrading the environment much more than a person standing in a room giving a lecture. While the traditional lecture-style TED talks enjoy widespread popularity, especially among educated types, they still ultimately depend on screen time to reach wide audiences outside of the lecture hall.

The fields of entertainment and education have gravitated to the same primary form of transmission: an electronic screen. So if you want people to listen to your message, you have to say it on screen. And you have to compete with an entertainment industry that produces pleasing screen content and does not ask the viewer to think while they watch.

People might not like getting lectured, but they usually like watching TV. So why not allow people to watch TV and educate them in the process? Tobias believes the issues his students’ films explore should be shared with a wide audience, and hopes they get people “not only to listen” and learn about them, “but to do something about it.”

But we live in a big world with an exponentially growing human population, and Tobias understands the challenge his MFA students face in finding audiences for their works. He also understands that people like to be entertained, and they will pay attention if they’re having fun. “We don’t separate entertainment from education,” he said. “They are functions of each other; they’re awkward bedfellows, but they’re necessary.”

The fields of entertainment and education have gravitated to the same primary form of transmission: an electronic screen.

The challenge is entertaining an audience with a science-based film. If the audience has fun while watching the film, they will learn something in the process. Tobias calls this a “new paradigm” of learning: “That entertainment is a critical component of education. You don’t just stuff information down people’s throats and say ‘Here, learn this; here, look at that,’” he explained. “You have to motivate them out of self-interest.”

Learning is like eating jelly beans, Tobias said. A 2008 consumer study found that when presented an amount of jelly beans, even people who like jelly beans will only eat a small amount before they get sick of eating them. But when the jelly beans are sorted according to their flavor and color, people “stay excited longer,” and ultimately eat more jelly beans, Tobias said. “We look to combine all these things about what’s the best way to educate. To keep people so they keep eating jelly beans, they don’t get tired of them, and they learn — each one of those jelly beans is a little nugget of learning.”

It might be a slow process, but if it works, it’s better than the old learning paradigm of book-learning, rote memorization and sleep-inducing lectures. People can learn using those techniques, but the widespread scientific consciousness the world needs today will not happen if scientists continue to write reports people don’t read. If politicians representing their countries in an international climate conference won’t read the reports, it’s safe to say the average consumer won’t read them either.

Getting it Right

Students in the Science and Natural History Filmmaking program come from a wide range of scientific backgrounds — they’re not all tree-hugging hippies. Yet Tobias admits to an “obvious” trending theme in the films they make. “Ecology and conservation, concern about the future of the world — that’s the overriding one for sure, because the world is changing,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter who we blame, whether it’s people or nature or whatever — the water is rising.”

When you give a scientist a camera, you allow him or her to communicate a technical discourse to a new, public audience.

People with humanities and arts degrees can try to explain science through writing or film, but without fundamental knowledge of the scientific concepts they are trying to explain, they will inevitably confuse the facts in the telling. This, of course, hurts the credibility of the science they want to teach in the first place.

Tobias experienced this in his early career making science-based films. “As far as talking to professional scientists, oftentimes I didn’t know what I was talking about,” he said. “You know, you don’t even know the right questions to ask because you don’t even understand what it is they really do, except in general kinds of ways.”

But when scientists interview scientists and make films themselves, the credibility of the final product increases drastically — a general audience might not see the difference, but other scientists certainly do, and the audience certainly benefits more from the more scientifically-informed product.

Tobias founded MSU’s MFA program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking to create scientific credibility in the filmmaking industry, and to educate the general public about science that affects them more than they might think. “Filmmakers have pretty much screwed it up — the media has screwed it up,” he explained, while adding that “scientists don’t get the media, either.

When you give a scientist a camera, you allow him or her to communicate a technical discourse to a new, public audience. “Anybody that’s taken any science courses has learned how to write in the passive voice and as objectively as possible, as dispassionately as possible, as rationally as possible,” Tobias explained. “To try to write to a general audience that way is almost always a disaster. It dehumanizes everything.”

Scientists doing science is not enough to save the world; they must also be leaders in educating the general public. That means inevitable discomfort: scientists stepping away from using the passive voice in jargon-heavy written reports and instead producing entertaining consumer media using language the average 10-year-old can understand, and non-scientists everywhere taking interest in science-based entertainment.

“Preaching to the choir is always important, because it solidifies your base,” Tobias said. “But a lot of us want to talk to the people who normally wouldn’t listen to us. We wonder, ‘How do I get to the person who doesn’t read that kind of stuff?’ Usually, you’d do it through self-interest, saying, ‘I don’t know about that global warming stuff, but crap it’s raining a lot lately!’ That’s an entrance into his world, and that’s probably the way to go about it, because that person then will listen because it has to do with their life and who they are and their future.”

Future Optimism

“My plan was to take over the world, and it’s happening; it’s great.” –Ronald Tobias

We may be a few years away from a box-office-chart-topping science-educating feature film, but the likelihood of that happening increases each year. Last fall, a recent graduate of the Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, Mark Seacat, released a short film called “Searching for West.” Clocking in at just over 25 minutes, it can be streamed online and has earned the distinction of a “Vimeo Staff Pick.”

Although Game and Fish reviewer Eric Conn’s main takeaway, that “nothing, not even the hunt, compares to the irreplaceable moments you’ll share with your family” is not explicitly scientific, he also states that it’s “one of the most visually well-done films I’ve seen in a long time,” proving that the program teaches its students how to make great films. The movie was funded by big-name sponsors like Gore-Tex and Leica.

The Element Film Festival provides a good setting for Science and Natural History filmmaking MFA candidates to showcase their work, but it does not reach the wide audience that films like Seacat’s do. The MFA program is a vehicle of change, but the real innovation in science filmmaking will come when more graduates use their degrees to create more paradigm-shifting films, reaching audiences that don’t even know they are watching science films and accidentally learning in the process.

“My plan was to take over the world,” Tobias said. “And it’s happening; it’s great.”